Every year, when I ask my husband to drag out the heavy boxes of Passover dishes, pots, flatware and other kitchen necessities, he reminds me that we are preparing for a holiday and removing the chametz – the leavened goods – from our home, we are not spring cleaning. And he is right, although not in the way he thinks. Passover cleaning and preparing our home for the holiday is so much more. Spring cleaning is simply an urge, as we prepare to return to the world from our winter hibernation, to wash away the darkness and grayness of winter in preparation for the light and bright colors of spring. With Passover comes a different urge. It takes the soul-awakening power of impending spring and joins forces with the place deep within us that needs to remember and share so that we and our children may always remember.
When the Hebrews had to leave Egypt, hard decisions were made. Treasured homes with hard-earned and long-loved possessions had to be abandoned for a new and unknown future. Each corner held a memory of a baby crawling or a love lost or a joyful meal or the broken shards of anger – all the detritus of many lives lived. How do you pack that onto your back or a cart? The best you can do is fit what you can into the space you have, hoping you’ve brought the things you will need or miss the most. You scrub the corners, trying to soak up any remaining strands of memory into your self and your soul and hope that it will be enough to hold in your heart when the ache of home has you wanting to run back to the slavery you know will kill you and your children.
When we moved across the country earlier this year, we had to sort though all of our belongings and determine what was simply too much to take with us. When life picks you up and takes you somewhere new, some pieces of you must stay behind, even though they may have been treasured ones. I still feel the pain of leaving my garden — the rosemary plant that was a seedling when we planted it and was an enormous hedge when we left. I miss the garden full of huge and nearly ripe Brandywine tomatoes. I remember checking them every morning as our day of departure got closer, only to see them bigger, but no redder. It felt like a cruel joke on someone who had nurtured them for months through a cold summer. I remember as we were about to pull out of the garage for the last time, my husband ran back into the yard and returned with six or so huge green tomatoes and put them in the back window of my car. As if they were the matzoh of my exodus: no time to ripen, but the sun did its work as we made our way to a new home (ironically through the desert.)
There is often a joke that the women at Passover will never be free; they still have to make Passover. After a decade of being a Jewish mother, I realized that the work of being mother and wife now isn’t so very different from the way it must have been then. Oh sure, the tools are different, but the jobs of feeding, clothing, loving, comforting and simply holding all the strings together are still the primary tasks we do. With every task we do, we connect with women across the generations and with our own little exoduses. It is especially tangible during Passover preparations as we are scrubbing the backs of cabinets we haven’t seen in months, right down to the cracks and crevices, the baseboards and the crown moldings, along tops of windowsills we have to stand on the counter to reach, cleaning the oven to provide a clean slate this time for our meals, and for the next family’s. We connect when we hear the slam of the moving truck door, the final walk-through of an empty and treasured home, locking the door for the last time against nothing but the past. These things connect us to our ancestors long ago, who, although they were slaves, were still people who loved their homes, their beds, their pottery and the lives they had created for themselves, even when faced with the daily burden of slavery. We connect across the millennia with those who ached and were afraid even as they knew it was time to move forward. We connect through the welcoming of the new life we are headed towards. And we connect with our own memories of love and loss and home and new beginnings.
This year, as I empty and scrub out different cabinets, unpack my Passover boxes in a different place, and search for chametz in entirely new locations, my mind won’t be far from my memories of leaving our home and so much that we knew and loved for a place far away with new hopes and promises. And it isn’t such a stretch anymore to think of those other Jews, so long ago, who shut the door on their old lives but remembered every year, as they scrubbed and cleaned and cooked, what it was like to be slaves in Egypt. I don’t know that I am ready for next year to be in Jerusalem but I am ready to be here, now, with more gratitude for what I have and more real love and empathy for who and what came before.
Jennye Woolf spends her days chauffeuring kids from country to city and back again and tries to fit in writing, knitting, making new friends and unpacking boxes into any extra time available. She blogs at Eema in the Middle.